Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Curiously Hollow Yet Curiously Haunting "Benjamin Button"


directed by David Fincher
starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, others
LOOSELY based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A curious case indeed, “Benjamin Button” is a study in contradictions: a three-hour movie that feels long, but not as long as it is; a gorgeous romance that feels oddly detached; and a fantastical conceit developed by a screenwriter with a sentimental streak (Eric Roth, who also scripted “Forrest Gump”) and a director with a cruel one (David Fincher, the man behind “Seven,” “Fight Club,” and “Zodiac”). The result is a film that seldom fails to engage interest but also ultimately fails to strike any deep emotional chords. Yet it lingers in one’s memory, which in the end may be the only kind of resonance that matters.

“Benjamin Button” spins its tale from the slenderest possible thread of source material: a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in which the titular protagonist is born an old man and spends the rest of his life growing younger until he dies an infant. The story is one of several in which Fitzgerald uses a flight of fancy as a vehicle for both pure whimsy and social satire, but in which the whimsy remains by far the more memorable aspect. Perhaps for that reason, the movie strips away virtually all satirical elements; indeed, it retains almost nothing of the original other than the name and the basic premise.

In this rendition, Benjamin Button is born in New Orleans at the close of WWI, a baby boy with the wrinkled visage and physical ailments of an old, old man. His mother dies while giving birth to him, and his father, repulsed by what appears to him a monstrous freak of nature, deposits him on the doorstep of an old folks’ home, where he is found, adopted, and tenderly raised by one of the caregivers, Queenie (a warmly appealing Taraji Henson). As Benjamin’s body grows (advice: don’t scrutinize the logical holes in the reverse-aging process), he also becomes gradually straighter, stronger, and less decrepit, allowing him eventually to find work as a crew member on a tugboat that travels all over the world. The movie ends up taking on the structure of a picaresque narrative, following Benjamin’s far-flung, decade-spanning adventures and amours, and above all, his ever-evolving relationship with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a sylph-like dancer whom he first meets as a young girl but who can only really meet him “in the middle,” for a finite period of time, as his lover.

Visually, the film is beautifully realized, even if—or perhaps because—much of it doesn’t feel remotely real. A storm-tossed sea, a snow-covered street in Siberia, a bohemian backstage party in New York, a placid Lake Pontchartrain at daybreak, all come off looking like paintings or something out of a dream; a pivotal scene in which a too-young Daisy tries to seduce a still-too-old Benjamin Button is silhouetted and backlit like a balletic sequence out of one of those 1950’s MGM musicals. Most artistic of all is the makeup, lighting, and who knows what other tricks that allow both Blanchett and Pitt to appear, at opposite ends of their characters’ lives, as miraculous reincarnations of their twentysomething selves, their pristine beauty untouched by any lines or furrows. (Far less successful is the attempt to create a dying 80-year-old version of Daisy by burying Cate under several pounds of “old woman” makeup.)

The performances anchor the fantasy somewhat without ever quite bringing it into a realm of tangible, gut-wrenching emotion. Pitt does his best, but his affect tends to the blank and impassive—to be fair, in large part because Benjamin’s inner life, other than his love for Daisy, remains something of an enigma. Blanchett isn’t given much more to work with, yet she somehow draws more out of her character, particularly as Daisy grows older and is forced to confront the consequences of their diverging paths. Even so, what has the capacity to be a tragic romance only ends up feeling, at most, dimly poignant. Nor does the film’s framing device, in which the aged Daisy tells her daughter (Julia Ormond) Benjamin’s tale from her hospital bed, help ground it in any greater emotional immediacy. The cuts to the present day (well, 2005) merely slow it down and break its flow, self-consciously emphasizing that the story is being told against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina for no reason than I can discern—unless it’s to hammer home the meaningless mantra, repeated throughout the movie, that “ya never know what’s comin’ for you.” Roth, who has several quite intelligent screenplays to his credit, including “Munich,” “Ali,” and “The Insider”, but who perhaps unfortunately will always be best remembered for a famously facile comparison of life to a box of chocolates, does the film no favors whenever he reverts to this kind of twee folksiness.

Still, something about “Benjamin Button” is bound to stick with you. Perhaps it’s those lovely, delicately lit images of dewy youth juxtaposed with creeping (or receding) decay; perhaps it’s that fleeting Russian interlude with the great Tilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first love; perhaps it’s Daisy’s anecdote to her daughter of the story of a clockmaker who built a clock for the New Orleans train station that would only run backwards, as a gesture of grief for the son he lost in WWI—a clock that becomes an obvious yet still haunting metaphor for Benjamin’s life. Perhaps it’s that from beginning to end the film is a surprisingly somber meditation on mortality—the key to understanding Fincher’s involvement. Throughout his career, Fincher’s been obsessed not so much with death as the human response to the imminence of death. Here, that response is much more muted than we’re used to seeing in his previous work, but it’s also an exploration into uncharted territory for him: the territory of gradual, irreversible loss. “Benjamin Button” lacquers over the more frightening implications of this progression (or regression), but they’re still there underneath, peeping darkly through the sleek outer coating of romantic fantasy.


Monday, December 08, 2008

"Milk" Does the Soul Good; "Slumdog" is More Pretty Than Gritty


directed by Gus Van Sant
starring Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Victor Garber, others

We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets ... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out. Come out to your parents, your relatives.

What’s perhaps most astounding about the statement above is not the words themselves, nor the fact that they were the capstone of a very public speech, but the fact that they were uttered in 1978. If you knew that already, then you know they were uttered by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in this country. Even if you didn’t know that but are moved by those words, then there’s little question you’ll be moved by “Milk,” Gus Van Sant’s delicately crafted tribute to a pathbreaker whose legacy carries an especially poignant ring today.

The film traces Milk’s evolution through the ’70s from buttoned-down middle-aged insurance salesman to hippy-dippy gay rights activist to self-proclaimed “Mayor of Castro Street,” the San Francisco neighborhood that became a haven (though hardly a safe one) for gays everywhere. While “Milk” looks like a biopic, it is and it isn’t. For one thing, it’s only about the last five to ten years of Harvey Milk’s life, offering very little detail about the years that came before and only brief, though not insignificant, references to his own period in the closet. (I am told the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is a far superior source of information about both the man and his influence, and an excellent film in its own right.) Arguably, however, “Milk” focuses on the most important years of his life; certainly they’re the years why he’s remembered today. Further, the narrative builds to no less than three climaxes that are structured to cast Milk in an unmistakably heroic mode: his election to the city board of supervisors, after several dogged but unsuccessful previous attempts; his crusade against Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have prohibited gays from teaching in California public schools; and his assassination by Dan White, a former fellow city supervisor who seemed driven less by homophobia than by a mixture of jealousy, psychological imbalance, and sense of political betrayal.

Van Sant sketches Milk’s flaws with a light hand, portraying him as a victim partly of circumstance, partly of his own error in judging one man (White) even as he managed to persuade people across the state and country to support him. Yet there’s something gauzy, almost impressionistic, about the way the film moves from one episode of Milk’s final journey to another that undercuts any tendency to Hollywood-style canonization. Stylistically, “Milk” falls almost exactly between the dreamlike “Elephant” and the provokingly square “Good Will Hunting,” and for the most part steers mercifully clear of bombast—even if Van Sant can’t help the occasional unnecessary tweak on the heartstrings. In his defense, I suspect most of the tearjerking moments are rooted in historical fact. (I could, however, have done without the often intrusive music that accompanies them.)

Moreover, “Milk” hits all of its true emotional climaxes with a kind of restrained intensity that never slips into histrionics, a description that also applies to Sean Penn’s superb performance as Harvey Milk. I will confess I’ve never been a huge fan of Penn’s, finding him guilty of a tendency to shameless showboating. Here, however, he disappears almost imperceptibly into the part of the tough, wisecracking, Jewish New Yorker made up of equal parts bluff charisma, tenacious optimism, and ineffable sadness underneath the scrappiness. The grandstanding and (often quite calculated) posturing that emerges at times feels all Harvey Milk, not Sean Penn, and that’s saying something. It helps, too, that Penn is flanked by an able supporting cast—among them, James Franco as Milk’s sometime lover, a nearly unrecognizable Emile Hirsch as his most effective field organizer, Allison Pill as his most effective campaign manager, and Josh Brolin as the deeply troubled White. The only one who’s out of place is Diego Luna as a mentally unstable younger lover, and that’s less the fault of Luna than of the character, whether as written or as he actually existed; sad to say, the film gains no emotional traction from his ill-fated liaison with Milk. Franco fares far better as a love interest, probably because his interactions with Penn feel like a real relationship, in all its touchingly bittersweet tenderness.

Still, most of “Milk”’s emotional pull inevitably comes less from its subject’s private life than his public one, not least because of the timing of the film’s release. There’s been a rather silly strain of “what if” speculation recently as to whether “Milk” could have helped defeat Proposition 8 if it had been released before Election Day. A more interesting question, to my mind, is whether “Milk” would be nearly as effective today if it hadn’t arrived fresh on the heels of Prop 8’s victory. There are painful echoes of the current political dialogue in the film’s historic footage of singer and Christian activist Anita Bryant, who campaigned actively to repeal gay rights initiatives and who appears so often in “Milk” she becomes practically a supporting character (and certainly a convenient villain); and in one scene in which Milk rails against the attempts of his more cautious allies to frame their anti-Prop 6 campaign in neutral “human rights” terms. Milk argues passionately that it’s a mistake to try to obscure the homosexuality of the people whose rights are at stake and that the public needs to see who these people are and how directly they’re affected. It’s a scene that’s bound to strike an especially sharp chord with those who made or received similar criticisms of the No on Prop 8 campaign. I’m inclined to believe it would still be powerful even if Prop 8 had not passed, but such speculation is ultimately beside the point. No film exists in a vacuum, and as a product of this particular historical moment, “Milk” deserves every bit of its resonance. One can only hope that some day in the not too distant future, that resonance will be triumphant rather than ironic.



directed by Danny Boyle
starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan, others

For me, “Slumdog Millionaire” is this year’s “Juno.” Had I seen it before its massive hype started snowballing, I would have found it a charming film with much to recommend it. As it is, I still enjoyed it and have no doubt that most people who see it will enjoy it, too. What I decline to do is crown it the best movie of the year, or even one of the best. At most I’ll say it’s the most interesting feel-good film of the year.

“Slumdog” is essentially a Bollywood flick, minus (most of) the singing and dancing, and reimagined by (the admittedly imaginative) Danny Boyle. That is to say, it’s a pure fairy tale set in modern India, spiced to the taste of Western audiences with a dash of cinema verité and a generous powdering of hyperreal, hyperkinetic cinematography that’s reminiscent of Boyle’s earlier work (“Trainspotting,” “A Life Less Ordinary”) and, more distantly, of the far superior “City of God.” The film’s premise speaks for itself: Young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a low-caste tea server who grew up in the slums of Bombay, is poised to win it big on the Indian franchise version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” How is he doing it? The powers that be suspect cheating, leading to a brutal police interrogation; the truth that emerges is that by some miraculous coincidence, every question Jamal is asked relates in some way to a significant event in his hardscrabble, poverty-stricken, danger-dodging young life. Why is he doing it? Not because of the money alone, but because he wants to find and save Latika, companion of his childhood and the love of his life, who’s currently the helpless moll of a ruthless kingpin.

Willing suspension of disbelief is, of course, a necessary staple for any moviegoer, and unalloyed sentimentality is par for the course in Bollywood. However, “Slumdog” isn’t pure Bollywood; it’s trying to be something else, a kind of hybrid that shows India through both its living reality and its archetypal fantasy. This makes the film undeniably fascinating to watch but not, in my humble opinion, entirely cohesive or effective. “Slumdog” doesn’t shy away from eye-opening scenes of cruelty, violence, and squalor, but jumps so quickly through them that there isn’t time for any real emotional impact to register. Similarly, the rather thin characterization of the film’s chief protagonists might pass unnoticed in a Bollywood musical, but felt noticeably lacking here, perhaps because I felt like I should be more deeply moved by their repeated partings and reunions. I found myself more affected by the relationship between Jamal and his amoral older brother, than his treacly romance with the beautiful Latika; yet even the fraternal relationship ends in such an over-the-top manner it’s difficult to take seriously.

That, in a nutshell, was my larger problem with “Slumdog”: how seriously are we supposed to take this movie? Luckily, “Slumdog” itself appears to answer that question with an infectious final scene that’s bound to send most viewers off (including me) with a smile on their faces. It doesn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, but it does make one less inclined to worry about them very much. For better or for worse, “Slumdog” is a film better off being enjoyed than analyzed, and all signs indicate that audiences are doing exactly that.